Mapping teacher agency: an ecological approach to understanding

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  • Paper presented at the Oxford Ethnography and Education conference, September 2011


    Mapping teacher agency: an ecological approach to understanding teachers work

    Mark Priestley, Sarah Robinson1 and Gert Biesta School of Education, University of Stirling


    The last ten years have witnessed the development of a new breed of national curriculum in a range of countries. Scotlands Curriculum for Excellence, the New Zealand Curriculum and recent changes to Englands National Curriculum provide telling examples of the emergence of a set of common trends in curriculum prescription (Young 2008; Priestley, in press). Such curricula seek to combine what are claimed to be the best features of top-down and bottom-up approaches to curriculum planning and development, providing both central guidance for schools (thus ensuring the maintenance of national standards) and sufficient flexibility for practitioners to take account of local needs. Intrinsic to these developments is a renewed vision of teachers as developers of curriculum and as agents of change (Fullan, 2003).

    The concept of teacher agency thus lies at the centre of these initiatives. There has, however, been little explicit research or theory development in this area (Vongalis-Macrow, 2007; Priestley et al., in press). Existing change models both underplay and misconstrue the role of teacher agency in innovation and, where the term agency is utilised, it is more often than not used as a slogan with little reference to theory. This suggests that a more sophisticated understanding is needed of two aspects of the dynamics of change: firstly, the institutional logics of the ecologies or settings in which change occurs (Young, 1998); and secondly, the ways in which teachers do in fact exercise agency, mediating policy to fit local contexts (Osborn et al., 1997), often in ways that reflect their biographies (Goodson, 2003), their belief systems (Wallace & Kang, 2004) and the contexts within which they work (Helsby, 1999).

    This paper discusses an ongoing ethnographic study which explores teacher agency. Taking as its starting point an ecological view of agency, the Teacher Agency and Curriculum Change2 project is undertaking research in schools to explore teacher agency in the context of a major national curriculum reform, Scotland's Curriculum for Excellence. The study takes place in three schools, two secondary and one primary, divided into three phases over a period of a school year. Methods include observations, interviews and event mapping. Feedback from participating teachers in each phase of the research informs the design of each subsequent phase.

    The project has two key aims:

    to trial a set of methodologies for identifying the factors that impact upon teacher agency;

    and to develop an understanding of key factors that impact upon such agency in contexts of educational change.

    In our paper, we will focus on the methodological issues that arise when undertaking a study of teachers agency as they enact Curriculum for Excellence. A central problem in this type of research lies in working out how we map/track agency in other words, how do we get to the underpinning factors that influence and shape the conditions under which agency is achieved, given that many of these are not immediately apparent. The paper will therefore first provide an overview of some of

    1 Presenting author

    2 ESRC reference RES-000-22-4208

  • Paper presented at the Oxford Ethnography and Education conference, September 2011


    the key concepts involved in the theorisation of agency, as this will provide a context for the methodological issues subsequently discussed. Our discussion draws heavily on Archers realist social theory (e.g. 2000a) and pragmatist writers such as Emirbayer and Mische (1998). We then outline some of the methods utilised to date in both the generation and analysis of data that have emerged from the first empirical phase of the project, showing how these approaches may be used to get under the surface of agency. In the paper, we explore the advantages offered by this approach to event mapping, as well as the challenges encountered by the research team.


    Before undertaking our analysis, we provide an overview of some of the existing theory relating to agency. While agency per se has been extensively theorised, Fuchs (2001) suggests that there has been a tendency in social research to either focus on an over-socialised, macro view of agency thus ignoring the local and specific or to concentrate on overly individualised notions of agency. In recent years, systematic attempts have been made to find a middle ground on this position, or indeed to reframe the debate altogether. These include Bourdieu's (1977) notion of habitus, Giddens's (1984) theory of structuration, and Archers (1995) realist social theory. A limitation of this kind of work is that it is located in a sociological problematic where the main ambition is to explain social action, either through what Hollis (1994) helpfully identifies as individualistic or holistic strategies. In the so-called structure-agency debate agency thus tends to appear as an independent variable/factor, while our interest is in the phenomenon of agency itself and how it is achieved in particular settings and under particular ecological circumstances (Biesta & Tedder 2006).

    Agency has been described as the capacity of actors to critically shape their responses to problematic situations (Biesta & Tedder, 2006, p. 11), or the capacity for autonomous action [independent] of the determining constraints of social structure (Calhoun, cited in Biesta & Tedder, 2006, p. 5). According to Archer (2000a), agency has been seen as autonomy and causal efficacy, which she has characterised as an undersocialised view of man [sic] (Archer 1998, p. 11), where people operate relatively unimpeded by social constraints, and society is epiphenomenal to the individual or group. An alternative view of agency is grounded in the influence of society over the individual, seeking to supplant agency with structure. For example, according to Popkewitz, 'many of the wants, values and priorities of decision making are determined by the structural and historical conditions of our institutions' (cited by Paechter 1995, p. 47). Archer has criticised what she sees as an oversocialised view of someone who is shaped and moulded by his social context (Archer, 2000b, p. 11), an individual who is little more than an epiphenomenon of society.

    In response to this sort of debate, Archer (1988, 1995, 2000a) posits a centrist notion of agency, which seeks to reframe the structure/agency dichotomy. She also provides a methodology for analysis analytical dualism which she claims provides a solution to a major criticism of earlier centrist approaches (notably structuration theory). Archer suggests that structuration theory provides no easily discernible distinction between conditions and actions. For example, she states that the duality of structure and agency in structuration theory effectively precludes a specification of when there will be more voluntarism and more determinism (Archer, 1988, p. 86). It assumes that all actors enjoy an equal measure of transformative freedom. In contradistinction to this, Archer believes that social acts are not equally fettered by the system, and, in turn, that they do not each have the same degree of effect on the cultural and structural systems. Although she cautions that it is not always possible to specify the causal mechanisms that lead to variations in agency, particularly in complex social organisations such as schools, she suggests that analytical dualism allows us to at least attempt such analysis, allowing judgements, for example, to be made about the relative

  • Paper presented at the Oxford Ethnography and Education conference, September 2011


    causative weight of social and individual factors on human action. We will demonstrate how analytical dualism has influenced our interpretation of data in our later section on data analysis.

    Taking inspiration from pragmatism and focusing on agency on a phenomenon rather than an explanatory device, Biesta and Tedder (2007) have outlined an ecological view of agency in which it is suggested that even if actors have some capacities, whether they can achieve agency depends on the interaction of the capacities and the ecological conditions of their actions. Rather than agency residing in individuals as a property or capacity, it is regarded as an emergent phenomenon of the ecological conditions through which it is enacted.

    [T]his concept of agency highlights that actors always act by means of their environment rather than simply in their environment the achievement of agency will always result in the interplay of individual efforts, available resources and contextual and structural factors as they come together in particular and, in a sense, always unique situations (Biesta & Tedder, 2007, p. 137)

    Viewing agency in such terms helps us to understand how humans are able to be reflexive and creative, acting counter to societal constraints, but also how individuals are enabled and constrained by their social and material environments. Thus, human agents are reflexive and creative and can act counter to societal constraints as well as with societal possibilities. As reflexive people, agents are influenced by, but not determined by society (Archer, 2000a). Through inner dialogue (Archer, 2000a) and manoeuvre amongst repertoires (Biesta & Tedder, 2006: 11) they may act to change their relationships to society and the world in general, contributing to a continually emergent process of societal reproduction and transformation. In a sense, this renders the question What is agency? sterile, replacing it with questions of How is agency possible? and How is agency achieved? (Biesta & Tedder, 2007).

    Such a line of thought is evident in the work of Emirbayer and Mische (1998, p. 963) who add a temporal dimension to understanding agency, seeing it as:

    a temporally embedded process of social engagement, informed by the past (in its habitual aspect), but also oriented toward the future (as a capacity to imagine alternative possibilities) and towards the present (as a capacity to contextualise past habits and future projects with the contingencies of the moment).

    Utilising this triad of the iterational (past), projective (future imaginings) and the practical-evaluative (present) elements makes it possible to characterise the particular 'tone' of peoples engagement with events in their lives. On an empirical level, the conception of agency espoused by Emirbayer and Mische requires not only the 'composition' of agency to be explored, but simultaneously it requires a characterisation of the different temporal-relational contexts within which individuals act (Biesta & Tedder, 2007, p. 137). This way of understanding agency provides space for the agentic orientations of people to differ in different contexts and times.

    In this formulation, agency is something that can potentially develop over time through a continual process of engagement and emergence. According to Archer (2000a), the capacity for agency emerges as individuals interact with the social (which contains both cultural and structural forms and other people), practical and natural worlds. Thus peoples potential for agency changes in both positive and negative ways as they accumulate experience and as their material and social conditions evolve. In line with the insights provided by Emirbayer and Mische (1998), such development is an ongoing process and has its roots in practical-evaluative activity. In Archers view,

  • Paper presented at the Oxford Ethnography and Education conference, September 2011


    our sense of self is prior and primitive to our sociality (Archer 2000b, p. 13), but the emerging sense of self is heavily influenced by social interaction and by other experiences.

    We are utilising the insights provided by this literature on agency to inform the generation and analysis of data within the Teacher Agency and Curriculum Change project. In particular, the following key ideas are informing our work:

    (1) Agency can be understood in an ecological way, i.e. strongly connected to the contextual conditions within which it is achieved and not as merely a capacity or possession of the individual. Agency is achieved in particular situations and through particular actor-environment transactions. (2) Agency can be understood temporally as well as spatially; thus analysis of agency should include insights into the past experiences and the projective aspirations and views of agents, as well as the possibilities of the present. (3) Analytical dualism provides a methodology whereby the various components of each setting can be disentangled for the purpose of analysis. For example, one might investigate the causative influence of the capacity of individuals on a particular instance of agency, as well as the influence of contextual or ecological factors (including social structure, cultural forms and the material environment).

    Overview of our research design

    Our research is being undertaken within a single education authority in Scotland in one primary school and two secondary schools (two experienced teachers in each setting). This focus on experienced teachers, who are already actively engaged with the new curriculum and who might be expected to exercise considerable agency in their day to day work, is providing insights into the factors that facilitate or inhibit such agency. Case studies highlight the biographies of teachers, the nature of the culture in each setting, social relationships which impact on the decision making of each teacher and the incidence of significant events. The construction of these case studies allows us to infer how the ecology of each setting (existing cultural forms, social structures and personal capacity) impacts on the subsequent teacher practices. The research extends to consideration of how connections with key personnel and policies within each school and the relevant sections of the education authority and other agencies impact on the work of each teacher. For example, we are researching the micropolitics of each setting (Blase, 1998), school systems and teacher networks (de Lima, 2004) and the occurrence of significant major events (including inspections and the provision of Continuing Professional Development).

    Analysis of socio-cultural interactions and social practices, including an interpretivist approach to the study of participants meanings (Corbin & Holt, 2005), provides the methodological point of entry to the research. The study generates data within the settings where actors engage with one another in response to the new curriculum, allowing us to construct detailed case studies...


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